10 Timeless Lessons

In the early 1990s, I started a job as the regional head of a consumer food company in the Middle East, Mediterranean and Africa. Our single largest market accounted for about 50% of the business in the region. Within six months of joining this operation, we confronted a business and public relations crisis in this market.

Three small children consumed our food products purchased from three different stores in the country, and they were immediately hospitalized. Some sort of nerve poison in the containers was determined to have been the cause of their severe reaction. Thankfully, all three recovered fully and returned home, largely due to a highly-trained and well-equipped hospital staff who had been “battle-tested” during work during the first Gulf War.

The incident made front-page news across the country. The company, distributors and stores were under severe pressure to remove all our products from the shelves. Such a move would have meant devastating financial consequences for the business, not to mention the ripple effects to our partners and consumers (and I would have likely been soon seeking new employment).

Facing the “Brutal Facts”

The department of health demanded we take action, as everyone thought our products were contaminated at our factories and would need to be removed and destroyed. If that were to happen, our business would be shut down for many months and would likely never recover fully.

Although one cannot equate this incident with the devastating effects of the coronavirus, the lessons we learned during our challenge are relevant and valuable for leaders of businesses — no matter the size — navigating this crisis today.

Facing the “brutal facts” is a concept that author Jim Collins introduced in the seminal book Good to Great. In every crisis, leaders must confront the brutal facts, he asserts. What’s more, productive change can only begin when one faces the brutal facts. “Yes, leadership is about vision,” he says, “But leadership is equally about creating a climate where the truth is heard, and the brutal facts confronted.”

Looking for and dealing with the brutal facts in our situation, we discovered that the affected containers were from three different factories — two in the US and one in Central America. Therefore, we knew the jars weren’t tampered with during production. Explaining the details to the local authorities who wanted quick action, we helped them understand that the violation of trust occurred at the store by ill-intended people. Removing our products from all stores across the country would have incentivized bad actors to take similar actions with other companies’ products.

Through our concerted actions, consistent communication, well-developed relationships with the government, retail stores and consumers, and high transparency, we were able to turn the tide. The company’s products remained on the shelves at a time when they were extraordinarily needed. Our volumes suffered briefly but quickly rocketed up. The trade and our consumers increased their confidence in our brand and products.

10 Lessons We Learned

  1. Deal with the brutal facts. Putting your head in the sand and ignoring realities never helps. Speak the truth to each other, just like the little boy on the parade route in the famous children’s tale, The Emperor’s New Clothes.
  2. Open and transparent conversations with customers, competitors, supply chain partners, and relevant government officials, create trust and a bond of mutual interest.
  3. Ask for help. Humility is a powerful quality.
  4. Previously established, trusting, healthy relationships underpin one’s ability to work smartly when under pressure. Trust empowers.
  5. Several fully invested minds working a crisis from every angle is so much better than one brilliant individual. Identify root causes together; discuss options; build next-step solutions; and, assign actions quickly. These steps result in tremendous insight and quick response. Full accountability rises when many are engaged in creating solutions.
  6. Communicate, communicate, communicate! Internally. Externally. Laterally and vertically. Communicate frequently to keep everyone on the same page.
  7. General Patton famously said, “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan next week.” Build a good plan and start working it fast. Iterate your way to better and more refined plans along the way. Start! Make the call! Decide!
  8. Think “WIIFM”! Realize that everyone works at least in no small measure from the position of “what’s in it for me?” Recognize the needs and hopes and fears of the many parties who may be involved in your situation. Try to find common ground in that WIIFM. Knowing what your counterparts fear and hope for unlocks new perspectives on crucial action plans. Thinking narrowly will lead to insufficient actions.
  9. Breathe! Take short clarity breaks. These will help you filter and reassess. You can’t make the right decisions while stretched for a long time. When a rubber band is stretched to its maximum for an extended period and then stretched a bit further, it snaps. Take breaks in the action. You’ll be more effective when you rejoin the fray. Think of a hockey team executing a line change.
  10. Prepare alternate plans in case your best plan fails. Be ready to adapt quickly.

Most of all, overcoming a crisis, no matter the scope, takes courage and strength. Collins calls this virtue, “The Stockdale Paradox.” In his words, “You must maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time, have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

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